Just about everyone is familiar with the plight of amphibians, which researchers fear are in worldwide decline due to pollution and habitat destruction. But what about reptiles? The scaly ones have been badly ignored, herpetologists and other researchers claimed at a forum earlier this month at the meeting of the Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry in Nashville.
"Reptiles are underrated and underexplored," says J. Whitfield Gibbons, a herpetologist at the University of Georgia, Athens. "Even biologists aren't that familiar with them." Bill Hopkins of the University of Georgia's Savannah River Ecology Laboratory, who is studying the effect of pollutants on aquatic snakes, agrees. "Of the thousands of studies on vertebrates in toxicology, less than 1% are on reptiles," Hopkins says--even though turtles, snakes, lizards, and crocodilians make up 20% of vertebrate species. Noteworthy exceptions are studies of pollution-caused alterations of sex hormones in alligators of Florida's Lake Apopka and effects of organic contaminants on snapping turtles around the Great Lakes.
Scientists are now pushing for more attention to reptiles. Some species of turtles and crocodiles live up to 60 years, so they could yield valuable information on cumulative exposure to toxins, Hopkins says. But they're harder to sample because they don't tend to congregate during breeding, and many live underground. At this point, says Hopkins, "we really don't know anything about their responses to contaminants."